Investigators Probe Risk Of Toxics To Human Reproduction

By Environmental News Network

Human reproduction, fetal and child development are vulnerable to chemicals in the environment and other environmental factors. New knowledge about the human genome is providing clues to how genes and the environment interact to cause developmental defects. Now the chemical industry and the federal government have agreed to jointly fund research that will extend knowledge in this area. Over the next two years, $4 million will be spent to develop better data and test methods for understanding the effects of environmental factors and chemicals on human reproduction and fetal and childhood development.

An agreement between the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), was signed late last month.

Through a series of meetings over the past year, the two organizations identified a mutual research goal -- to conduct multidisciplinary research on the mechanisms of action of potential developmental toxicants using state-of-the-art tools, including genomics and genetic animal models.

"On behalf of the members of the Council, I am proud and delighted to sign this Memorandum of Understanding with the NIEHS," said Fred Webber, ACC president and CEO. "Through this agreement we will jointly fund research grants to expand knowledge about the potential effects of chemicals on development."

The new agreement commits the council to provide $1 million and the federal institute $3 million to the joint project, enough to cover about 15 grants.

Studies suggest average male sperm counts have sharply declined over the decades. Breast cancer and testicular cancers appear to have increased.

About half of all pregnancies in the United States result in prenatal or postnatal death or an otherwise less than healthy baby. In its report, the National Research Council (NRC) estimates that exposure to toxic chemicals, both manufactured and natural, cause about three percent of all developmental defects. At least 25 percent might be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors, scientists believe.

The National Research Council committee emphasized that all stages of human development, from conception to puberty, should be examined in toxicity studies, since all developmental periods are potentially susceptible to toxic agents. There is also a need to look at all adverse developmental outcomes, including growth retardation, behavioral effects, and death, the NRC panel said.

Through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the federal government already conducts research to discover how chemicals in the environment, including pesticides that mimic the hormone estrogen, might cause or stimulate these diseases.

NIEHS Director Dr. Kenneth Olden described the new deal as, "a collaboration between government and industry to improve the health of the American people by improving the quantity and quality of the data on potential developmental toxicants."

Scientists from NIEHS and from the Council will screen grant applications prior to an independent, NIH scientific peer review process. Applications ranked as having the highest scientific merit will be offered funding. This joint effort maintains the strict independence of the NIH peer review process in the assignment of a scientific merit evaluation measure for the research grant applications, the NIEHS said in a statement.

In accord with the NIH and Public Health Service policies, and other federal regulations, there is no restriction on publishing research findings from the grants funded by the NIEHS, whatever their outcome.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences already has The Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR), established in June 1998, which investigates potentially hazardous effects of chemicals on human reproduction and development.

The chemical industry's funding comes from the ACC's Long-Range Research Initiative (LRI). Established in 1999, the chemical industry has committed more than $100 million to this program over five years to increase knowledge about the potential effects of chemicals on human and wildlife populations and the environment.

The vast amounts of data that could be generated by testing thousands of chemicals for potential developmental toxicity will require new databases capable of organizing this information in a way that is useful for risk assessment.

The databases will include information from industry, academia, and government researchers, and be linked with existing databases of developmental biology and genomics, as well as those describing how drugs and chemicals are metabolized by the body.

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